Saturday, October 15, 2005

Flying Careers Part 2: The Airlines & Beyond

Nothing drives a commercial pilot crazier than this conversation, which tends to take place way too often:
Them: What do you do for a job?
You: I'm a pilot.
Them: Oh, cool! What airline do you fly for?
You: I don't. I'm a (flight instructor, freight pilot, charter pilot, etc).
Them. Oh. When will you be a commercial pilot?
The outside world tends to think of commercial aviation as beginning and ending with the airlines. Now, the major airlines may be the most common career goal, but there are a number of other "dream jobs," and in any case there are a lot of stepping-stone jobs that just might turn out to be your "dream job." In this post I'm going to discuss some of the various ways that people make money flying, and the qualifications needed to get hired at each. Pay, lifestyle, job security, and other in-detail aspects will be covered in subsequent posts. I'll start out with higher-end jobs and work my way down to jobs traditional considered to be stepping stones.

Major Airlines
The majors aren't what they used to be. The airline business has always been cyclical, but the last four years have been one giant downturn with absolutely no relief in sight. That said, if you're a pilot, the major airlines are still often the #1 career goal.

For the purposes of this post, a major airline is one whose primary business is flying jet aircraft over 100 seats. Lately, analysts have taken to dividing United States majors into "legacy carriers" and "low cost carriers," ie LCC's. Legacies are the airlines that've been around a while: American, Alaska, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and USAirways. LCC's include Airtran, America West (merging with USAirways), Frontier, jetBlue, and Southwest. LCC's have also been cropping up in Europe, Canada, and parts of Asia.

In the US, Continental and Alaska are the only two legacy carriers likely to hire within the next few years. The rest have hundreds to thousands of pilots on furlough. Most LCC's, on the other hand, are hiring. Southwest and jetBlue alone account for most of the major airline hiring in the past several years. The downside to flying for these carriers is that your career potential is fairly limited: they only fly one type of aircraft, and do not fly internationally.

With fewer jobs available at the majors, competition for the slots can be fierce. The minimum requirements typically include an ATP certificate with 1000 hours as pilot in command of turbine powered aircraft. Realistic minimums are typically 4000+ hours total time with several thousand hours of turbine PIC. Most majors (but not all) require or strongly prefer a 4-year degree - in anything, not just aviation. Anybody aspiring to the majors must be able to hold a Class I medical, with requirements including vision correctable to 20/20; they should also have a clean criminal record and relatively good driving record.

Major Cargo Airlines
Cargo pilots used to be the redheaded stepchildren of the airline industry. Not so these days - as pilots for legacy carriers face paycuts and furloughs, major cargo pilots find themselves in the uncustomary position of being envied. Pilots at the largest carriers (FedEx, UPS, ABX Air) enjoy good pay and job security as the worldwide cargo industry continues its profitable growth. A number of less-known carriers such as Kalitta, Evergreen, and Atlas only fly widebody aircraft on international routes. The pay at these carriers is spotty, but improving.

Getting hired at a major cargo carrier requires qualifications on par with or exceeding those for the major airlines. At FedEx, these days it's almost a requirement to have a personal recommendation from a current FDX line pilot.

Military Flying
There was a time when practically all airline pilots were ex-military aviators. To an aspiring young airline pilot, then, the advice was: go put in some time with the Air Force.

Times have changed. The military uses far fewer pilots than it used to, and keeps them for longer. Competition for military slots is strong, and many cadets wash out before completing training. Depending on which branch you fly for, your commitment may be well over 10 years. And while there are very good things to be said for military service, it's not always easy or fun, particularly if you have a family.

Some advice from the perspective of somebody who would've loved to fly for the military but was unable to: if you really want to join the military, and you want to spend many years flying for them, go for it. If you're looking at it mainly as a stepping stone to your dream airline job, I'd choose another path.

Corporate Jobs
Corporate aviation barely existed thirty years ago. These days, more and more companies are seeing business aviation as a useful tool, and the growth is predicted to continue throughout the next ten years. Some corporate aircraft are owner-flown, but most companies employ professional pilots. The aircraft can range from single-engine turboprops to large jet aircraft like the Boeing BBJ, nee 737-800.

Corporate pilot pay, lifestyle, and job security can vary greatly, depending on the operation you fly for. In the past, corporate pilots have become airline pilots and vice versa, but neither is really a stepping stone to the other. They are really considered two separate careers. The job itself is usually quite different from airline flying. You are not only a pilot, but often also a dispatcher, a flight attendant, and a baggage handler. Keeping the boss happy is a big part of the job; unfortunately, they sometimes pressure their pilots to take unsafe risks. Most corporate operations take place under FAR 91, which are the same rules that govern general aviation. This allows greater flexibility than airline operations, but the captain must exercise considerable discretion to preserve safety of flight.

Corporate job requirements are as varied as the jobs themselves. There are companies that will hire fairly inexperienced pilots into lower-paying jobs, but you'll need to do a lot of ground-pounding to find them if you don't know someone at the operation. Most companies, however, require significant experience, including time in their type of airplane, and possibly even a type rating. Unlike the major airlines, a 4-year degree is not a common requirement, although it'll never hurt.

Fractional Operators
A relatively new development in aviation is the rise of fractional operators like NetJets and FlexJet. These companies manage and staff a fleet of business aircraft, each of which is owned collectively by several clients. Flying for a fractional operator can combine some of the best aspects of corporate and airline flying; pay, however, is well under that of major airlines and many corporate operations. Some pilots have flown for fractional carriers, then used that experience to move on to better-paying corporate gigs.

Getting hired with a fractional typically requires less experience than a major airline or a corporate flight department. Usually, an ATP and first class medical is required, but there is generally no PIC turbine time requirement, nor a requirement for experience in a certain airframe.

Charter Services
One more job that may involve flying Gulfstreams, Citations, or other business jets is charter flying. This is generally done under FAR 135, which is somewhat like the rules that airlines fly under (FAR 121) but not quite as stringent. Charter outfits have a bit of a bad reputation for pushing their pilots to fly and other abuses, but there are many quality operations out there. The best way to find them: they're the ones that require far more flight time than you have!

Okay, perhaps that's an overstatement, but my point is this: not all charters operators are equal. If you find this kind of flying appealing, it is possible to make it a good career by finding a quality employer once you have good experience. If you're looking for a timebuilding job that is perhaps an alternative to regional airlines, you may well find an operator that'll take you on - but you will likely be used and abused.

Regional Airlines
Regional is a misnomer. It conjures up images of a Beech 1900 putt-putting its' way to East Haystack, IL, which fits the description of very few regional carriers today. Many of today's regionals are huge operations employing thousands of pilots to fly hundreds of advanced 50-90 seat jets on routes that approach transcontinental length. If this sounds exciting, consider that it happened at the expense of job opportunity at major airline carriers. The regionals are increasingly becoming a career destination of their own, or at least a lengthy stopover.

Regionals still vary a lot in pay, benefits, lifestyle, and job security. I'll discuss specifics in a future post, but suffice it to say that there are "bottom-feeders" out there. They attract pilots looking for quick turbine PIC time - which qualifies them for a major airline job quicker - and work them hard for poor pay. The problem is that these are often the very companies flying 90-seat jets at ridiculously low costs, doing away with the very jobs that the pilots are working towards.

Enough preaching. My advice is that if you go the regional airline route, try to get hired by a quality company that has more to offer than a quick captain upgrade. Growth can start and stop very quickly in this industry. If it stops at your regional, you want to be someplace that you won't be miserable and destitute in the right seat. For that matter, consider if the regional is a place you could spend ten years or more. Nobody knows when or if major airline hiring will pick back up again.

The minimum qualifications for regionals have been quite scant lately, with a number of people hired at under 1000 hours total time. I'd say the average minimums would be a Commercial certificate with Class I medical, 1000 hrs with 100 hrs multi-engine time. Although not required, things like an ATP written or 4-year degree will help you get hired, possibly with less hours than the next guy. Note that a number of regionals have very recently stopped hiring or even furloughed, so competitive minimums may go up quickly.

Okay, this post is getting too long, I'm splitting it up. In Flying Careers Part 2B & C: Unique jobs, timebuilding jobs.


Anonymous said...

Great article. Cant wait for the next one.

Capt. Wilko said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Capt. Wilko said...

Hi Sam,
Nice post. So with the goal or reaching a major within 5-7 years, what would you advise someone entering the industry? Got to an outfit like Colgan, where upgrade on the Saab is about a year then spend a couple of years as Capt. raking in that PIC turbine time, or go to one of the quality regionals such as Horizon, ExpressJet or AWAC where upgrade might be anywhere from 3 to 6 years?
I can see benefits in both, but if the majors are the ultimate goal would've assumed that a quick upgrade (within reason) would be very important.
Really enjoying the blog! Keep it up!

sequ said...


I've been hooked onto your blog and others that I found through you for some time now. I also registered in Got Wings but haven't really been involved there. I think this series of posts is excellent. Since you asked about different aviation career experiences, I thought I would write about my experience in starting an aviation career a few days ago, but wasn't able to find the time. Well, now I have time, so I hope this is worth something. This might bring a different perspective since I am from South America and things certainly are different here than in the States.

I studied for my private here at home and finished my Comm/Inst/Multi and my CFI's in the U.S.. I instructed in the U.S. for one year (my visa wouldn't allow me to stay further, eventhough I would have loved to instruct more). I then returned home, flew Corporate for three years, a small Regional for two years and now have flown for three years in the equivalent of a Part 121 Major throughout the Americas and also to Europe.

Your first part of the series asked what differences there might be outside the U.S. jobwise. I might point out a few similarities and a few differences. First the similarities: My corporate job ended because a financial crisis hit the country and the airplane was sold. That happens in the U.S. just as much. The quality of life of the average pilot is decreasing all over the world. Every pilot looks for that elusive job security...nothing is secure nowadays.

The differences: In terms of the airline would say that even right now, with all the concessions that have been made by the unions in the U.S., I still earn about 1/4 of what I would earn if I flew the same airplane in the U.S.. This applies to the third world only. I believe that in Asia and Europe this is not the case, but it is like that here. Another difference, my airline has no Union, and that is the case in all the airlines in my country...I know that not all airlines in the U.S. have them, but usually they push for better working conditions, am I mistaken? Flying Rosters: We don't get to bid for our trips and lines like you do.
During the first 10 days of the month, we can ask for a specific day off or ask for one flight that we would like to be on for the following month. The rest is up to the company, we have no say and our seniority doesn't have any leverage for trips. I'd kill for bidding!!!

One good thing: Aviation outside the U.S. is definately growing, so in some companies you can get a Command relatively fast. Unfortunately, one should be happy about it for professional reasons, but usually you are just as happy for the financial "upgrade".

I know a million other things that are the same or different, but I don't want to bore you. I just think that pilots are pilots all over the world and in the end of the day, we like to fly and wherever that is we will be happy. I terms of a career, yes, it has definitely changed the world over, and I'm afraid it won't ever be what it used to, so I feel we all must adjust or try doing something else. I know it sounds crude, but I think that is the reality of the future.

I hope you keep on writing because it is really enjoyable to see what you are up to. Your writing ability is quite intimidating because it is good, so keep it up.

Happy Landings,



sequ said...


Just read some news about expansion at your airline...maybe you won't be FO for life :)



Sam said...

Sequ, excellent information on the similaries and differences in flying jobs outside the US; it's not a bore at all, feel free to post more details. Thanks for the compliments on the blog - I'm glad you enjoy it.

RE: Expansion at Horizon. Well, we have 13 airplanes coming, but we're planning to get rid of nine Q200s for a net increase of four airframes over 2006 and 2007. Incidently, this replaces the two airplanes per year that were on order before, so there is actually no "new" expansion here, just a different mix of aircraft types. That said, the order includes options for 20 additional Q400s, so significant additional growth is possible.

Sam said...

So with the goal of reaching a major within 5-7 years, what would you advise someone entering the industry? Got to an outfit like Colgan, where upgrade on the Saab is about a year then spend a couple of years as Capt. raking in that PIC turbine time, or go to one of the quality regionals such as Horizon, ExpressJet or AWAC where upgrade might be anywhere from 3 to 6 years?

Wilko, is your goal to reach a major within 5-7 years from now, or from getting hired at a regional? To tell you the truth, if getting hired with a major is your *only* goal, I'd bypass the regionals altogether and get a job flying freight in a Be99/B1900/Metroliner.

The thing is, with the majors hiring so few, it could be much longer than you plan before you get there. With that in mind, it's worthwhile to go somewhere you'll be happy in the meantime. There's more to consider than upgrade time. In my own humble opinion, pilots chasing turbine PIC at all costs has kept regional pilot pay low, which is one of the things destroying jobs at the majors.

The other reason not to choose a job based on upgrade alone is that it changes so quickly. Ask any FO at Pinnacle who signed on expecting a 2-year upgrade and now is looking at zero growth and indefinite crappy pay.

Mind you, the choice isn't between Mesa and Horizon. There are a few quality operators out there that are still growing. Of course, the thing that's often unsaid is that you do not pick a picks you. But some of these would be good places to cultivate contacts, send resumes, etc.

I'll have more on this subject in the upcoming career progression post, probably with less editorializing. Hope this helps.

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